The deepest parts of the ocean are the least explored places on our planet. Immense water pressure and a complete absence of sunlight make this environment nearly as unwelcoming as outer space. Yet locked in these dark depths could be clues that will help us better understand our world.
When the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER dropped nearly 7 miles (11 kilometers) to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, its mission was one of scientific exploration and discovery, part of an expedition that will help scientists study alien ecosystems and the tectonic forces that help shape Earth.
The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER returned from the ocean’s deepest point with images and samples of never before seen species. The pilot also brought back rocks and images that, coming from the boundaries of two tectonic plates, may give geologists new insight into the forces behind earthquakes. Scientists predict that many more undiscovered microorganisms dwell at these depths. These microbes are specially adapted to withstand incredible pressure, can subsist on unusual food sources, and may inspire new biomedicines and technologies.
The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was equipped with a hydraulic manipulator arm that could pick up rocks and animals on the ocean floor. Two unmanned vehicles called landers were also dropped into the trench—they contained cameras, along with baited plastic traps that collected creatures and water from the ocean bottom. The images that the pilot captured will give scientists additional context on this poorly understood environment.
Only three other vehicles have made the descent to the Challenger Deep, the world’s deepest known point. In 1960 two men descended there in the bathyscaphe Trieste, a sub bigger than a bus. Once there, they spent only 20 minutes staring at a milky cloud of sediment before returning to the surface. In the 1990s, the Japanese-built Kaiko, an unmanned, robotic submersible, made several trips to nearly 7 miles (11 kilometers) below, picking up sediment and microorganisms along the way. In 2009, the Nereus, also an unmanned vehicle, made its inaugural trip to the Challenger Deep. Built by engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Nereus can collect rocks, animals, and water samples and can transmit high-quality video to the surface through a hair-thin fiber-optic cable.